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Students hop off a school bus on Highland Road near Lee Drive, Wednesday, June 5, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La.

Despite notable gains in key areas, Louisiana remains mired near the bottom nationally when it comes to public school achievement.

The state launched its latest bid to improve schools more than 20 years ago, including a sweeping overhaul of operations that former Gov. Bobby Jindal rammed through the Legislature in 2012.

More students than ever — 81.4% — graduated from high school last year.

The number of students earning a qualifying score for college is up nearly 7,000 students since 2012.

Students gaining college credit in high school have shot up 167% during the same period.

"If you take the long view, and look at the vast majority of the commonly used measures of education, Louisiana has improved significantly in the past five or 10 years," said state Superintendent of Education John White, who began the job in 2012.

But reversing a generations-old problem — classroom achievement compared to the rest of the U.S. — has largely eluded more than two decades of efforts by governors, state lawmakers, teachers and others.

The state's fourth and eighth grades finished between 48th and 51st last year in reading and math, worse than they did 15 years earlier.

Last year Louisiana finished 45th on the ACT, which measures college readiness, with a composite score lower than in 2001.

In 2018, Education Week magazine rated the state 49th for academic achievement — for the fourth consecutive year.

"In my opinion, we have not moved the needle fast enough," said Linda Johnson, who joined the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in 1999 and served until 2010.

Sounding a recurring theme, Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, said Louisiana has made major progress but began with "tragically low" test scores.

"It is sort of like we are on an escalator," Erwin said. "We are going up, but so are competing states. That is what makes it difficult."

The state of public schools is especially relevant as the race for governor heats up ahead of the Oct. 12 primary and candidates spell out plans that they say will produce better test scores.

Classrooms have undergone waves of changes under various governors since 2000.

Former Gov. Mike Foster is identified with requiring fourth- and eighth-graders to pass an exam — called LEAP — to move to the fifth and ninth grades. However, the passing standards were set so far below national benchmarks that the tougher rules failed to translate into national gains.

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco got teacher pay up to the regional average in 2007, a key ingredient in attracting talented educators. But the state is chasing the same target today after salaries slipped below the Southern average amid recurring state budget problems.

Jindal's "swinging for the fences" education agenda featured state money — called vouchers — for low-income students to attend private schools, and tougher teacher evaluations. Seven years later, arguments continue on the impact of vouchers, and key parts of the teacher job reviews have been rolled back.

Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, a major supporter of the Jindal overhaul, was chairman of the Senate Education Committee when the changes were pushed through the Legislature.

"For a time the results of those reforms seemed to indicate outcome improvements, but surely by now we should see much stronger results?" Appel wrote recently.

"And the scores are abysmal," he said of how Louisiana students did on the nation's report card — the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Educators and others often note that Louisiana is one of the most poverty-stricken states in the nation. Nearly 70 percent of the state's 720,000 public school students are classified as "economically disadvantaged," including those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

State aid for public schools was frozen for 10 of 11 years starting in 2008.

"Education has not been adequately funded," said Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and former superintendent of the Central School District.

However, national gains are tough when revamping public schools is a political juggling act.

Requiring fourth- and eighth-graders to pass a high-stakes exam for promotion was a volatile topic that made Louisiana something of a national pacesetter in the early 2000s. 

But for years the bar for passing was set below the level needed for students to acquire even basic skills because of fear that thousands of students would flunk, and the system would collapse.

"That would have been too tall a hill to climb," Erwin said of linking passing rules to national standards.

It has been only in the past two years that the state has tied what students need to know on the test — the second-highest of five achievement levels — to what students in other states are expected to learn.

Only 37% of students in Louisiana are there so far.

Jindal left office in 2016 convinced that vouchers were crucial for turning around schools. The state has about 7,000 voucher students at a cost of around $40 million per year.

But the program was plagued by controversy from the start, including questions about the quality of some schools that got the state payments and how students fared academically after they moved.

Scores for voucher students were initially below those for their counterparts in traditional public schools.

After three years those results were on par in English and math with students who tried to qualify for vouchers, according to a report by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, which is based at Tulane University.

"The vouchers is a great program that got off on the wrong foot and never got back on track," Appel said.

Former state Sen. Ann Duplessis, president of the pro-voucher Louisiana Federation for Children, disagrees. She said the percentage of voucher students scoring "mastery" on LEAP — the state's 2025 target — rose from 7% initially to 23% in 2017, and surveys show parents are happy with the program.

"The idea that this has not worked out is just not the case," she said.

Even some of the success stories fail to resonate nationally, however.

Louisiana's high school graduation rate is the highest ever but remains low by national standards.

The percentage of high school students qualifying for college credit — called Advanced Placement — was long ranked near the bottom in the U.S. "We have literally tripled the number of students achieving an AP credit in the past seven years, and still Louisiana ranks low," White said.

"Look at where we started relative to other states," he said. "Louisiana has extraordinary historical challenges and starts from a low place."

White said Louisiana ranks 12th among the 17 states where all high school seniors are required to take the ACT, not just students planning to attend college.

Leslie Jacobs, who served on BESE from 1996 to 2008 and was one of the architects of the initial changes, said Louisiana has made major gains since 1999, when only 50% of kindergarten students graduated from high school.

"The increase in the graduation rate is a huge accomplishment, and it was done with integrity," she said.

"We did not dumb down the graduation requirements," Jacobs added. "They are actually harder requirements than when I was on BESE in 1996."

Jacobs said the graduation figure in New Orleans rose from 54% in 2005 to 78% in 2018.

Louisiana's high school graduation rate for black students is higher than the national average, according to the state Department of Education.

"We are making significant progress," said Jim Garvey, a member of BESE who lives in Metairie and is running for re-election.

But other problems remain unsolved nearly two decades later.

In 2002, education leaders complained that academic achievement was being hurt by the fact that 15% of teachers were uncertified. Today, nearly 1 in 5 teachers is either uncertified or is teaching outside their field.

Public school policies have changed little under Gov. John Bel Edwards, who spent his first three years in office grappling with state budget problems.

Efforts by Edwards to make it easier for teachers to earn tenure, and harder for students to qualify for vouchers, were among a host of bills that died quietly in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

The governor, who is seeking a second term, won approval for $1,000 teacher pay raises this year and has pledged to reach the regional salary average by 2021.

Unlike public school achievement, Louisiana's education standards often win national praise, including how student progress is measured.

"The state's policy framework is widely recognized as one of the better ones nationally, but policy only gets you so far," Douglas N. Harris, chairman of the Department of Economics at Tulane and director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, said in an email.

Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who sponsored Jindal's voucher expansion bill in 2012, and others said Louisiana's new focus on early childhood education may pave the way for major gains in national education rankings.

"I hate to say this, but it may be a 20-year program," Carter said. "We are so far behind."


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.